These days, it’s a slippery slope- championing what we share in common versus what sets us apart. Perhaps it has always been the case.
Today, anyone who includes “community, dignity, belonging” in their mission statement- personal or organizational- sounds mildly delusional. (This is the moment during Happy Hour chatter when you pretend your great grandmother is calling you on your cell.) Those three words, especially when corralled together with only punctuation marks to separate them, is perceived as morally lazy, emptied of meaning, ossified into cliché. And in the current funhouse environment of double-think, where we can supposedly (against all scientific proof*) hold a true and untrue thought at the same time and in the same space, some of us are left confused by what to do with our own intrinsic -and beautiful- human instinct to pay it forward, do some good for the world.
Community. Dignity. Belonging.
What do those words really mean? Who lives those values anymore? It used to be attributed to small town folk everywhere, no thanks in part to the collective amnesia that is induced every Christmas by It’s A Wonderful Life and its high priest of the head-fake and turn-around (home breaker to saint of community-building, in two hours), Jimmy Stewart. But there is increasing evidence in our hyper-connected world that the very raison d’être of small-town values, even if it has been feeding off zero-caloric nostalgia, are eroding.
But all good organizations, like good writers, will steer clear of clichés, ossified or not.
A great story moves forward with concrete nouns and verbs. A great organization executes its values through an action plan. Forget about asking why about “community, dignity, belonging”. The answer is bound to be a snoozer and you will ask for the bill before your date ever gets to finish her dissertation. The real question to ask is: How? And this comes to us vividly when another set of questions are being asked around the same time: What would happen if? What happens after? Good mechanical questions for both narratives of organizations and organization of narratives.
Earlier this year, I was asked by an old friend, Kate Swift, a master Japanese restaurant manager in her past kimono-ed life during the Edo period, if I would consider engaging in a fundraiser with her organization, Extend-A-Family, Waterloo Region, whose mission statement, incidentally, includes those three aforementioned words. She wanted to reach people in the Kitchener-Waterloo area who were not familiar with the great work they do.
“What would happen if we did a sushi-making workshop? Could we really tap into a network of people beyond our usual generous donors and community?”
“What happens after? Would these human sushi rolling machines want to deepen their involvement in the organization?”
The answer to both questions, of course, is YES.
Established in 1981 by parents of children with developmental disabilities, EAFWR began with a simple “how” question: How do we “extend-a-family”? (The hyphens are hands, bridges, scaffolding.) How do we create community, dignity, belonging for those too often left feeling like they are standing outside the gates looking in (recall Jimmy standing on the bridge at the end of the movie)? Well, to start, how about by finding matches for supported families with other volunteer families residing within those gates? Maybe they’d be okay with it, yes? It was an a-ha! moment for them. Many came out and opened their gates. Good folk, you see, keep reminding us that love and giving are the true beacons in human relations, even when so much of the bumper-to-bumper activity in our daily lives leaves us feeling like we are about to capsize.
This model of support- and it has been a powerful adhesive for the people of Waterloo (just check out how many programs they get off the ground each year)- continues to be foundational for them.
And an inspiring lesson for the rest of us.
The event was held at the gorgeous local craft beer distillery, Descendants, with some of the freshest sushi-grade fish on this side of Tsukiji Market generously donated by T&J Seafoods. The fundraiser sold out quicker than you can say “Cucumber maki, please, arigato!”
We raised lots of money (and temakis), but more importantly, deepened a community’s engagement with this organization’s good and great vision.
It was fun and deeply satisfying. People helped each other off the slippery slope, climbed a well-made staircase by the handymen and women of EAFWR, and stood together proudly on the promontory.
Easy climbing. No dissertation. There will be a second date.
Yeah, we belonged there. Just a group of welcoming strangers feeling the genuine camaraderie of a shared mission. Telling each other feel-good stories and meaning every word of it.
*For those more inclined toward a mathematical proof of my point, here is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And when you are done, Einstein, come join us up here on the promontory. You deserve a hug.